The Gristle

Four Promoting Five
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FOUR PROMOTING FIVE: Despite the long and pretentious, preening moment of silence and quiet reflection the conservative caucus of the Whatcom Charter Review Commission invokes at the start of their meetings, caucus members nevertheless failed to gain divine insight on several key realities:

First, Whatcom County Council is the recognized authority able to affirmatively place charter amendment proposals on the ballot for voters in November. County Council also holds the legal authority to consider other petitions or requests to place matters in front of voters, and indeed may propose their own amendments to the county charter. Finally, County Council is under no duty or obligation to place unlawful, ill-advised or just plain stupid charter amendments on the ballot.

In short, the charter review process is a bit of a joke, made even more of a joke by the scheming clowns who thought to confer permanent political advantage to their worldview by tinkering with the county’s governing documents.

In 1978, freeholders proposed a home rule charter to govern Whatcom County. Every 10 years voters elect a 15-member Charter Review Commission intended to examine that document to ensure its structural efficiency and suitability to the needs of the county. Never did freeholders imagine this advisory review body would smash apart that document and sift through its flinders in a forensic search of weaknesses they could exploit to deny others their voice in county government.

Activists issued a reminder of who actually controls that government last week by proposing four amendments to the county charter and requesting County Council forward them on to the ballot. The proposals, arriving just hours before the meeting began, sent paroxysms of panic and cries of anguish through the chamber as supporters of the conservative caucus tumbled to the realization their schemes had been outmaneuvered.

Council Chair Carl Weimer framed the discussion with a question to legal counsel—“So our charter outweighs the state constitution?” he asked. No, counsel sputtered, it does not.

One proposal simply affirms Article XI, Section 4 of the state Constitution, reminding us all that document “places the authority solely with the legislative authority of the county, the County Council, to propose charter amendments to the voters, and that legislative discretion and authority granted by the state Constitution cannot be amended by charter amendment.” Imagine that!

A second lowers the threshold by which citizens can petition for changes to the charter, aligning it with (surprise!) state law and doing an end-run around the Charter Review Commission, which earlier this year high-handedly rejected a similar proposal to bring the county into alignment with state law.

A third calls for the end of district-only election of the commissioners as a means to curb the nonsense seen this year by the inane tyranny of the conservative caucus, who abused their office to game permanent advantage in elections. As noted by supporters, the CRC is elected through a different mechanism than other elected county representatives; the proposal would end that.

The fourth is the most intriguing, proposing division of the county into five representative and cohesive districts.

We’ve noted before that Whatcom’s three voting districts are artifacts from the county commissioner structure in place prior to the adoption of the charter in 1978. Centered on Bellingham as an easy way to apportion roughly equal populations, they are otherwise representative of very little—certainly not the compact, cohesive “communities of interest” called for in the state constitution. These dysfunctional, nonrepresentative artifacts are the weakness the conservative caucus of the CRC seeks to rig in their proposals for district-only voting.

The fourth proposal introduced last week bows to the wisdom of electing representatives from each district, but it proposes five intelligent districts—a district for populations in the northwest county, one in the central farming communities, another for communities in eastern Whatcom, and two centered around the population nucleus of Bellingham (literally, two-fifths of the county). Two at-large positions would round out a seven-member council.

The CRC’s majority caucus wouldn’t even consider putting it to a vote.

Partisan jiggery-pokery of the sort imagined by the majority caucus was the subject of a divided opinion issued this week by the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that voters may appropriately create mechanisms to help draw district boundaries and relieve partisan control of elections. Washington voters adopted just such a tool through referendum in 1983, and the court ruling (while focused on Arizona) upholds the state system. And, by extension, the fourth proposal.

In the opening notes of her majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comments on “the current climate of heightened partisanship” that has created such division and election rigging to impose minority control over majorities of people. Perhaps no local body more clearly represents this condition than the conservative caucus of the CRC, which abuses its “authority” to reshape the county to an image of its own liking. In affirming the power of the direct democracy of citizens, Ginsburg cites the seminal work on this topic co-authored by Western Washington University Professor Todd Donovan, a candidate for Whatcom County Council who currently serves in the minority on the Charter Review Commission. While Donovan has proved persuasive to the nation’s highest court, he and other accomplished members of the CRC were unable to steer the commission from obstreperous folly.

Donovan encouraged County Council to consider the submitted redistricting proposal, noting it was a more sensible approach than his commission had produced. Its review functions corrupted, whatever the CRC might do, County Council does better.

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